Every morning from approximately 7:25 to 7:31, I shiver at the corner of East Court and Terrace Street and wait silently beside unmet neighbors to step onto the Iowa City bus, receive a satisfying beep-greeting from the bus-pass-reading machine, and cramp myself and my bags into a seat next to another unmet neighbor. Approximately sixteen minutes later the bus drops me off at Stop 7202, a stop sign at the bottom of the bluff of the Iowa River, a five-minute walk from my destination—the English-Philosophy Building—where I will teach a group of tired freshmen how to write and speak in college.
On this morning's sixteen-minute ride I was thinking, possibly for the hundredth time, what I could possibly submit to the Verse of April collection to which my dazzling poet sister-in-law generously invited me to contribute. A Ph.D. student in English, I've been thinking a lot about questions like this lately: in what meaningful ways can I, a "critic," contribute in the artistic circles that feel so powerful, so moving to me? When and why did the relationship between art and criticism become so divided? Why does scholarship about literature often feel so disconnected from the art and craft of literature itself? Why does what I do on a daily basis not feel more like art? I want it to feel more like art.
Anyway, as I was sitting next to a reading stranger-neighbor on the bus, having this familiar conversation with myself in my head, I looked up and found my poem. It was posted above the windows of the bus, discrete among the local business ads and rules for bus decorum that no one seems to notice.
"Love That Dog" by Brittney Jones, a 13-year-old 6th-grader at Robert Lucas Elementary, is apparently part of a program Iowa City does called "Poetry in Public." The poem reads:
Love that dog like a cat, love to jump,
I said I love that dog, like a cat loves to jump,
I call him at night, "Hey there, Boy."
I think this poem spoke to me in this moment for several reasons. First, it was written by a child of this City of Literature who hasn't yet encountered such complicating ideas about what art should or shouldn't be, can or can't be—these complicating ideas that I, for reasons that seem distant to me right now—came back to school to study?
Also, it's got an attitude and an elusiveness to it that I really enjoy:
"Love that dog like a cat."
Does she mean she loves that dog like a cat would? Or is it that she loves that dog like she loves cats? Maybe she's saying that the dog she loves is himself like a cat: "Love that dog-like-a-cat." And also it's "that" dog. We're supposed to already know him.
Then, after "Love that dog like a cat," there's "love to jump."
Does she love to jump? Is this line a list of the things Brittney loves, which include "that" dog and "to jump"?
There's a sassiness about it, especially in the ahem-excuse-me-LISTEN-to-me moment of the second line that, in my head, sounds like:
"I said I love that dog! Like a cat loves to jump!"
I love the world this poet lives in in which everybody knows that cats love to jump.
It seems to me like this sassy Brittney couldn't care less about what art should or shouldn't be—she just needs to speak her truth about that dog, about that cat that loves to jump. She needs to tell us that, at night, she calls that dog just to say "Hey there, Boy."
The last reason I love this poem is just that it was there. Hiding in that capsule of politely cramped neighbors bundling lunch bags, briefcases, their workdays in their laps, "Love That Dog" is shouting above the screeching of brakes, the beeping of passes, the groaning of the engine. Poetry in public. Hey there, Boy.
Anna Williams, MA, ABD, is finishing the third year of her doctorate program in English at the University of Iowa. She lives with her husband (Joseph) and two cats (Louis and Clawdette), and she misses the Spanish moss and oysters of her Alabama homeland.